By Kyle Daubs
If you ask Haley Sparks, Jeff Miller has gotten soft.
The 2010 CHS graduate turned former assistant coach has seen both sides of Coach Miller. While former junior varsity and assistant coach Amy Jackson won’t use those exact words, she has seen the evolution throughout the years.
“He was much harder and strict on the teams he had his first years,” said Jackson. “He was making a change from coaching boys to girls and had to learn how to balance that through the years. He made that change and was able to read girls better and understand how they saw things.”
Jackson, Sparks, and current assistant coach Ceci Brinker have seen just about everything as assistant coaches during Miller’s 14-year run with the Charleston High School girls basketball program. As Miller prepares for his final games with Charleston, his assistants, current and past, reflect on the experience.
A girl’s coach
Basketball used to be centered around boys for Miller. From 1990-92, Miller went 49-33 coaching Windsor’s boys and was 40-92 from 1998-02 with Charleston. During his first three seasons with the CHS girls, a longtime friend and former JV coach Jeff Hollowell served as an assistant coach. Miller has three sons, two of which eventually finished their basketball career earning All-Apollo honors.
When Hollowell left, Miller did not have another male assistant coach, something Sparks says he grew to love.
“He would always say he was ‘outnumbered’ because he was the only male staff, but we all know he secretly loved being around his girls all the time,” said Sparks.
Ultimately, Jackson believes the switch helped Miller.
“I always felt that he was able to get more out of the girls whether it was a player or a child of my own,” said Jackson. “He has this ability to get the greatest potential out of somebody. I saw it with my own two girls.”
Turning CHS into a contender
Heading into the 2007-2008 season, the Charleston girls basketball team had won a combined 35 games over six years. It only took one and a half seasons to surpass that total. That included leading a team that had pieces from an 11-16 team the year before to a 20-8 record his first season.
“Seeing potential in a player and getting the most of that player is one of his greatest attributes,” Jackson said. “If a player could excel on defense, he was going to find a way to get them on the court. If they could help us on offense, there was a way he’d find a spot for her.”
The following year, the girls broke a school record for wins in back-to-back seasons. The 24-win team was headlined by Stephanie Harper, who finished her career as the school’s all-time leader in points and rebounds. When she graduated, Sparks, Brittany O’Dell, and Holly Wohltman helped break that school record again with a 25-4 season.
Sparks said Miller’s support was essential.
“Knowing I had someone who was going to hold me accountable but was also going to be right there with me throwing punches, if needed, was huge while I played for him,” said Sparks.
The rebuilding years
Coach Jackson served as an assistant coach with Miller for 13 seasons. Her first two seasons were on a volunteer basis before a paid position was created. Miller learned of Jackson’s playing background after the two attended the same church.
It was Jackson’s first coaching job at the high school level. As for Miller, he was transitioning from traditionally coaching boys teams. Miller had coached at Windsor High School and previously coached the boys at Charleston.
When Jackson looks back, she will always remember one of the most-asked questions during their time together.
“One of the main things he would ask me is ‘Can I say that to girls?’ He wanted to know if he was pushing too hard,” said Jackson. “He wanted to make sure he was doing right by the girls. He can be an intense coach during games and at practice. He’s a spitfire and wants the best. He wants perfection.”
After three seasons of what looked like near-perfection, there was a three-year period where it wasn’t that. Following the school-record-setting season, the 2010-2011 team finished with his fewest wins and worst record: 7-19 record.
The team then went 8-18 and 8-16 the following two seasons.
“Those years were tough for him,” said Jackson. “Those seasons back-to-back featured some teams that struggled. Simply put, Jeff doesn’t like to lose.”
Bringing back ‘Charleston Basketball‘
Miller’s daughter, McClain, had just finished her senior season and was a part of a 12-12 team that featured some several talented sophomores, offering hope for a rebound.
Miller brought back a familiar face in his former all-conference guard in Haley Sparks, who coached with the team through the 2018 season.
“Coaching-wise, I was his right-hand man,” said Sparks. “I did the majority of the scouting, getting a game plan together, and he trusted me with doing that. He knows I have high knowledge of the game. We talk basketball more than we talk about anything else. I would suggest something, sometimes he would hesitate, but he trusted me with what I was seeing.”
They subsequently had a great run in 2014-2015, capturing the school’s first regional championship in 22 years, followed by five straight 20-win seasons and two more regional championships.
Brinker, who joined the staff in 2009, said this program is special.
“Coaching with Jeff, Amy, and Haley was an amazing experience,” said Brinker. “To coach and be a part of a program of the caliber that Coach Miller has maintained throughout the year has been amazing. I’ve coached at all levels from college to high school to junior high and there’s not a program that I have been associated with like the CHS girls program.”
Always being in your corner
It was February 2011. Charleston was battling to keep pace with a Decatur Eisenhower team that eventually won a regional championship. In the second quarter, a whistle stopped the game. A technical foul on Charleston’s bench. Coach Brinker was whistled for a technical foul after an official heard a comment just loud enough to reach his ears. It was her only technical foul in 11 seasons. Miller had her back.
“The calls were inconsistent throughout the entire game,” said Brinker. “I mumbled something on the bench along the lines of that there was a foul down there, but it’s not a foul down here. Then, boom, Jeff went into safe mode and went to bat for me. It was just one of those games where I put in my two cents where it wasn’t needed and almost got Jeff in trouble. When I look back, I always appreciated Jeff sticking up for me.”
That was what Miller did for his coaches and players, though: loudly and tenaciously fighting for his coaches and players.
During the regional championship season in 2015, Brinker recalls Miller being “unfairly” removed from a game with Sullivan. Miller said he was just trying to protect his players.
“That game against Sullivan was such an extreme response by the officials,” said Brinker. “You had two really good teams, state-ranked, battling it out on the court and the officiating took the focus away from the game. It was one of the most physical games we had played. When they booted him, it was unfair. To this day, he will tell you that he never wants to take away from the players. He will go to bat for them anytime.”
Building a winning culture
Over the past 14 years, we could talk about how seven of those seasons featured a state-ranked Charleston team. We could talk about the Apollo titles, the 246 wins, or the 2018-2019 team that finished the season with a 29-1 record. While those were good times, Jackson, Brinker, and Sparks lean more into other memories.
“Some of the best times were sitting on the bus and talking about what the player did well and who needed to improve,” said Jackson. “Who shined on offense or defense? We talked about strategy and how we would go into games with a plan. Ultimately, Jeff made the final call, but he valued our input. He gave us the opportunity to be a part of this program and truly be an assistant. There would be so many times at practice that we would work through a play, and, by the end, the girls would just be laughing and having fun. That’s a culture he helped create.”
Jackson remembers plenty of other times outside of the court, too.
Each Christmas, he and his wife, Kelly, would host a holiday meal for the team. “That was so much fun every year,” Jackson said. “Ceci and the girls got him his clipboard with his name on it that he still uses today.”
Brinker said that the relationship between player and coach is easy to describe. It’s because Miller has a vision that goes beyond basketball for his girls.
“He just knows how to bring out the best in his players,” said Brinker. “They may not always like that but in the end, they know he was just trying to get their best. Something he always says is that he wants them to leave the program better than when they started. He sets the bar high. He wants the kids to be better students and better young ladies because basketball isn’t always going to be a lifelong dream.”
Jeff Miller CHS girls coaching record